The Surprising Trick to Flat Abdominals and a Strong Core

So you work out, eat right, lift weights, follow every fitness trend (or not)–but you may still have that little (or big) bulge on your stomach. My mother calls it the “ponch.” On men, it’s the gut or keg or…you get the picture.

Before scouring the internet for the latest exercises or strange devices that promise results, check in–can you touch your toes with straight legs? If not, your hamstrings, the muscles on the back of your thighs, may be to blame.

In Pilates, every exercise we do is in some way related to the idea of “neutral pelvis.” This is the position when your hip bones are facing directly ahead, they are not tilted one way or the other. If you were to lie on your back, those hip bones would be facing directly to the ceiling with bent knees. Working from neutral pelvis is the key to getting the muscles in the lower part of your trunk to fire. It’s often not just your rectus abdominus, but also the iliopsoas and pelvic floor muscles. If you can get them strong, they will support your lower back and much of your back pain can be eliminated. You can also feel confident wearing low rise jeans.

But–if you have tight hamstrings, you can’t physically be in neutral pelvis while standing. That means all day long, when you sit, stand, run–you are not toning that tummy. You can go to the gym for hours a day or bike, hike, whatever, but if your hamstrings are very tight–you won’t get the results you desire.

There is a lot to this idea of Pilates and I recommend getting started with an instructor knowledgable about “west coast” Pilates style for a broader perspective on neutral pelvis. But in the meantime, start stretching your hamstrings!

Here is a stretch to get you started from my lovely students Donnyale and Ann:

IMG_3771 IMG_3772

You want to be able to have a totally straight leg. Once your leg is at a 90 degree angle and totally straight, there will no longer be a  shift in your pelvis away from neutral. Grab a belt, towel, loop from your bathrobe–any tool to help you accomplish this. You do not need a fancy theraband or yoga strap.

And–if you favor group exercise classes, don’t leave early and skip the stretches. You are doing your body a disservice. Your tummy will thank you as it becomes more toned.

One of the reasons that post natal women often struggle with the ponch is that their pelvis has totally shifted during the pregnancy so it takes awhile to get it back to neutral. Post natal students should most definitely stretch their hamstrings to hasten the progress.



The only abdominal/core exercise you’ll ever need

Crunches are over-rated. In a desk-bound, car-bound world, we don’t need anything else to bring our shoulders forward. If you do one exercise, let it be a plank on your elbows:


This will get your stomach toned and strong and support your posture. Notice how my hips are in line with my shoulders and ankles. Pull your stomach in to your back as if you are in a high school reunion picture that will be posted all over Facebook.

Make sure you don’t arch your back:


Lift your bottom above your shoulders:


Or, scrunch your shoulders to your ears:


Send those ears away from your shoulders as if you are under a waterfall in Hawaii or wherever your happy place may be.

Now, a good goal is to be able to hold this plank for two minutes. Here is your schedule to accomplish this in two weeks. Yet– I must mention that this is an exercise program. A plank is an exercise. Do these moves at your own risk and be sure to consult a doctor before starting any new exercise.

Day 1: Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

Day 2: Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

Day 3: Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat 2 times.

Day 4: Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

Day 5: Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

Day 6: Hold for 40 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

Day 7: Hold for 50 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

Day 8: Hold for 1 minute. Repeat 2 times. Then get up and do your happy dance! You are on your way to a strong core and flat abdominals!

Day 9: Hold for 70 seconds: Repeat 2 times.

Day 10: Hold for 80 seconds. Repeat 2 times.

Day 11: Hold for 90 seconds. Repeat 2 times.

Day 12: Hold for 100 seconds. Repeat.

Day 13: Hold for 110 seconds Repeat.

Day 14: Hold for 2 minutes! You did it!!!!!

Notice how you do more repetitions with the shorter holds. I have developed this program so that you ease into the two minute plank. If while you are holding the plank, you start to feel it in your back, stop. In Pilates, the form is more important that the repetitions or how much weight you lift. This program will assure that you are able to hold Plank with proper form and keep tension out of your back and neck. Newer exercise students make take longer than the two weeks to accomplish the two minute hold. Always listen to your body and do the exercise with ease. Also, don’t forget to breath. Holding your breath will not help you on this series.

This exercise is really great for anyone who is post-natal. I recommend walking, planks, and kegels for the first six months.

How to Maintain (or even lose) Weight on a Cruise

I just got back from a lovely cruise aboard the Westerdam of the Holland America Fleet to Alaska. As a personal trainer and fitness guru, I could not help but notice that the plethora of food could possibly be a waist line catastrophe for most. So, I came up with some tips for anyone looking to enjoy the cruise to the fullest while still fitting into those jeans by the end.

  1. Follow the One Plate rule at buffets: Go to the buffet. Do a walk around and survey the offerings. Get ONE plate and fill it up without stacking it. You must be able to see all the items at one time on the plate. DO NOT GO BACK for seconds. Realize, you will be on this ship enjoying the same buffet for at least seven days. There will be time to sample everything.
  2. BEWARE the salad bar: Getting a salad at the buffet is deceptive. It can often end up calorically higher than the food you actually wanted to eat when you add the calories in dressings, cheeses, and croutons. Having a salad does not necessarily mean that you will maintain your waist line. Eat what you really want and enjoy it in modest portions.
  3. Have dessert once a day: On my cruise, breakfast was dessert. Lunch buffet had too many desserts. Ice cream was available twenty four hours a day. Yet, the really beautiful and decadent desserts were served in modest portions at the sit down reservation dinner. I chose to eat my dessert then. Whatever your pleasure, have it once a day.
  4. Skip the snacks: I ascribe to the theory that both three square meals a day and four-five small meals a day will both work–if you pick ONE method. On a cruise, the meals are so plentiful that you are bound to get all your calories in one go. This is not the time to eat the large meals, then go to cocktail hour, then go to high tea, etc. The cruise is meant to be a time a feasting, but just do that three times a day.
  5. Exercise: On a ship of nearly 3,000 guests, I saw the same ten to fifteen people in the gym daily. I went at different times too. Burn some calories so you can enjoy more food.
  6. Take a walk around the ship after big meals: I learned this trick while I was pregnant with my second child and experiencing gestational diabetes. In order to regulate my blood sugar, I had to take a ten to twenty minute walk within one hour of starting my meal. When I did this, I did not need to take insulin. I find that it can help anyone whether they experience diabetes or not. On our ship, the third level was designed for laps and if you did three, it would equal one mile. Make it a point to do that after every meal and you will maintain your weight and feel better. You will lessen the food coma effect and possibly have more energy for the casino or the dance floor.
  7. Take all of the fitness classes that the ship offers: On my cruise, the classes were very limited, but the teachers were excellent. Use the cruise as an opportunity to try new modalities and begin an exercise program if you are not already engaged in one.
  8. Book a session with the cruise personal trainer: Again, my cruise featured great trainers. If you currently work with a trainer at home, keep the routine up on the ship. If you don’t work with a trainer, consider this a decadent splurge to jumpstart your health and wellness. You will get more out of this service than a massage.
  9. Limit alcohol to two drinks a day: I know, this is a bummer. You are finally on a cruise and you want to let loose. Yet this trip will be at least seven days. Your waist line and your wallet will thank you for limiting alcohol intake. This suggestion is actually hard to follow with the attentive waiters at your beck n call offering you drinks at all hours of the day. Sure, you are watching the sea, spending time by the pool…but if you start the drinks early in the day, you most likely ditch the walk around the decks and all the fitness classes and opt for a nap or boozey shopping instead.
  10. Order regular portions at the sit-down dinner: Sure, it’s all you can eat and the waiters will bring you three appetizers, two entrees, and two desserts if you ask for them (my husband and father-in-law did this), but again, you want to maintain or even lose weight on this cruise so act accordingly.

All of these tips are things I practiced on my last cruise and I maintained my weight and had a great time. Happy Travels!